Dr Dylan Evans, Lecturer in Behavioural Science, University College Cork, presented the DREaM Project Launch Conference closing keynote entitled:
“The promiscuous researcher: flirting across disciplines and courting the media”
Some researchers stay faithful to one discipline, but Evans argued that variety is the spice of love. He’s been seduced by a variety of subjects during his academic career, from linguistics and psychoanalysis to robotics and philosophy, but he’s never settled down with any of them. Some people think he has a commitment problem, but Evans believes that commitment is a problem in itself. Monogamy is like reading the same book over and over again. In this keynote presentation he told the story of some of his research relationships, and explained the thread that links the apparently disparate disciplines with which he has fallen in love, and why he eventually got divorced. Along the way Evans has also enjoyed relations with the media. This has brought censure from some straight-laced and – he claims – most likely jealous colleagues.
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Evan began by pointing out that much of what he had to say was based on an extended metaphor. This is the idea of researcher promiscuity.
He sees most academics as being married to one discipline. They often don’t look very happy about it, but looking disapprovingly at those who might be called promiscuous or practice serial monogamy. He discussed the Coolidge effect, which is a phenomenon in biology whereby the male of many species will continue mating all day with multiple females but will not show any interest in a female that he has mated with earlier in the day, no matter how it is disguised.
He observed that some of us are more faithful than others. His own intellectual journey has been bizarre, beginning with a degree in linguistics and Spanish, which took him to Argentina, where there are more psychoanalysts per capita than New York. This attracted him to the study of psychoanalysis. However, once he finished studying and began practicing in the NHS, he became very skeptical of psychoanalysis, so he quit and returned to university to explore what he had found unsatisfactory about it. This led him to do a PhD in the philosophy of science, followed by an increasing interest in robotics as a way of modelling emotions. By chance he met a professor of biomimetics at his mother’s birthday party, who was working for the University of Bath to start a programme examining evolutionary robotics. The professor hired him, allowing him to learn the more practical aspects of robotics before becoming a senior lecturer in robotics at the University of the West of England. He used an image of cogs to illustrate that there was a level of underlying logic between these seemingly disparate ideas.
Evans reflected on Cronin’s opening keynote to observe that one of the dangers of not talking to other disciplines is that you can end up idealising them. However, when you learn about other disciplines, many of them are beset by the very same flaws that Cronin identified in Library and Information Science. He explained that physics is really the only science that has acquired this cumulative, mature stage when real science can begin. He built on this by observing that there was a huge impression gap between science fiction and science fact in robotics.
He moved on to discuss his difficulty in knowing what to call himself, which has resulted from this promiscuous intellectual background. His philosopher friends refer to him as a very philosophical psychologists, whilst psychologists tend to refer to him as a very psychological philosopher. This means he has to refer to himself as a psychologist “with a small p”, to avoid misrepresenting himself.
He discussed the “it’s not my organ” hyper-specialism issue within medicine, which allows researchers to have monopolies in particular areas. This leads to a very anticompetitive, antitrust attitude, making medicine one of the worst disciplines for interdisciplinary research. However, Evans was able to describe a piece of work, funded by the Levahulme Trust, in which they built a model of the human heart using a rapid prototyping 3D printer and FMRI scans. This created a beautiful object, with contours showing, in a static form, the dynamic movement of the beating heart. It never occurred to the mechanical engineers involved that they could make objects like this, as they had been constrained by their disciplinary training, so the project had an immediate benefit of opening them up to think more creatively about their tools. However, the project also led to thinking about practical biological uses for the system, including heart models to form a framework into which human stem cells could grow to create a working replica.
Evans observed that sometimes sci-art projects don’t always benefit both sides equally. The artists struggle to get scientists to take on board what they can bring to them. This project was genuinely mutually beneficial.
He concluded by discussing how to be a media tart. Because he has actively engaged with the media throughout his academic career, he has received a staggering number of snide remarks from colleagues, including being called a media tart. At first he resisted this, emphasising that it is important to have public intellectuals to communicate beyond the ivory tower, but in the end, he decided to embrace the phrase and turn it into a badge of pride. He now takes the wind out of the sails of anyone who criticises him in this way by saying: “YES! I am a media whore! And it’s great.”